Lessons from Descartes on the Value of Latin Liturgy


June 10, 2016

I was in the fourth grade at Christ King School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin when the changes wrought by Vatican II were implemented. Memory is a tricky thing, but I am fairly certain that, in the space of one week, Sr. Achillea stopped drilling us on the Baltimore Catechism, threw some pillows on the floor, cranked up Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and put us to work making collages. As for Mass, Latin was out; English was in. Traditionalists were unhappy, but most Catholics, seeing their children able to participate wholly in liturgy and understanding it more fully themselves, seemed to embrace Mass in the vernacular.

Unlike the sillier changes wrought by the “Spirit of Vatican II,” I have never doubted, until recently, that changing the language of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular was a good thing. While it is a fine option, I thought, folks pressing for the liturgy’s return to Latin seemed a bit hidebound and inflexible. Pope Francis apparently shares this view; as he said recently, “Allowing priests to celebrate Mass in the language of the local congregation rather than in Latin allowed the faithful to understand and be encouraged by the word of God. You cannot turn back…. [T]he liturgy isn’t something odd, over there, far away that has no bearing on one’s everyday life.”

However, I began to reflect more deeply about liturgical language a few months ago when my husband and I spent a semester in Rome. Neither of us speaks Italian, and my Latin is lost to me after years of neglect. I was thoroughly homesick in the first few weeks of our stay, and I craved the comfort of a Mass I could understand. Mass in Italian was alien to me; I was a stranger in a strange land. Feeling inept and anxious, I craved at least one place in this very foreign city where I knew what was happening and how to participate in it.

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Before 1968, Catholics traveled the world and found the Latin Mass everywhere they went. No doubt, when those Catholics heard the Latin, the churches they visited became little oases of comfort and familiarity. The Tridentine liturgy was also an affirmation of the universality of the Catholic Church. In those foreign churches, hearing the Latin words of the liturgy while outside the church people were speaking French, or Italian, or Dutch, or Farsi, instantly bonded them to the other Catholics in the pews. Their experience was one of “I share something with these Italian Catholics that is far more important than anything I share with fellow Americans.” Hearing Mass in a cross-cultural universal language is a powerful statement of the communion of saints (which we hope will, one day, include us).

Pondering all this in my pew while the priest prayed in rapid Italian to the “Signore,” I wondered if I was going to change my mind and join the Catholics who militate for the re-instatement of Latin in the Mass, either the Extraordinary Form or the Novus Ordo. My first reaction to that possibility was “Well, no, of course not. Were we to return to the complete and permanent use of Latin, what comforted me in Italy would challenge me back home. The Mass in Latin would be less foreign to me in Italy, but far more foreign to me in the States. The Latin Mass was one big reason that Catholics who lived in the 1950s were seen by the larger culture, including the non-Catholic Christian culture, as odd, strange, a bit creepy. Certainly I did not want to go back to that, did I?”

Maybe I should. Maybe we all should. Pope Francis urges us not to think of Mass as something odd. Yet the Catholic Mass is, in fact, quite odd. It is about something weird, strange, even (for some) a bit creepy. We eat God. We eat him because he asked us to do so. We believe that an event that occurred over two thousand years ago is being re-enacted—not symbolically, REALLY re-enacted, right in front of our noses. It might not be such a bad idea to be reminded by the strangeness of the language that something strange—wonderfully, salvifically strange, but strange nonetheless—is happening.

Descartes Ushers in Vernacular Philosophy
Having plenty of time to meditate during those incomprehensible Italian Masses got me to think about Rene Descartes. What Vatican II did with the Mass, Rene Descartes did with the Academy. From the founding of the first university in Bologna, Latin was the language of the schools. All academic work was written and published exclusively in Latin. Vernacular languages had started springing up all over Europe, and French was the language of “the people,” not the Schools. Descartes deliberately published his first important work—The Discourse on the Method—in French. His action was shocking and, in the minds of many in the Church and the University, needlessly reckless. Descartes’ reasons for using the vernacular were clear; he said at the time that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves.

Discourse on MethodWhen I teach the Discourse in class, I read the first sentence out loud and then tell my students that it signals the beginning of the modern era; a paradigm shift happens the moment that Descartes says, “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for everyone thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.” With this stroke of Descartes’ pen, the age of authority is over and modern philosophy is born.

Students invariably greet this news with shrugs and raised eyebrows, because they assume that what Descartes said is an unambiguously good thing. Never has a student worried that something valuable has been tossed aside in this democratizing of wisdom. They are blithely confident in their own collective ability to think as well and deeply as anyone else—their classmates, me, Rene Descartes. It is an awkward space in the classroom, because I know what they seem incapable of knowing: they aren’t nearly as bright as they think they are. And as much as our American instincts tell us that democracy is a universal value, we have to acknowledge that not every mind is equipped to tackle philosophical discourse, and pretending differently leads to real and serious problems.

The university as we have understood it for hundreds of years is the place where intelligent people think together about challenging, difficult—even potentially heretical—topics. (For example, the question whether Mary was indeed conceived without sin was a “hot topic” among theologians in the thirteenth century, and ideas were being tossed around that could threaten perhaps the faith of or instill a false confidence in the “regular people.”) Ideas are dangerous things, and an idea that is incompletely or incorrectly understood can pose a threat to peoples’ very salvation.

Does Vernacular Language Make the Complex Accessible?
What has this to do with the Latin Mass? Plenty. Descartes is telling people, in their native language, that they can “do” philosophy as well as anyone in the Academy. No one need be alienated from the world of ideas. Nothing strange, or difficult, or humbling going on here. No need for humility. No need to feel “less than” anyone else. Everyone can play. In the same way, the vernacular Mass encourages the faithful to think of transubstantiation as no big deal. We are all just getting together and celebrating our warm and fuzzy—our accessible to everyone—faith.

Language is powerful, and it can be used to include or to exclude. Mass in the vernacular is inclusive. Philosophy in the vernacular is inclusive. But both end up making people feel “included” who share no salient characteristic other than their own smugness regarding their grasp of the reality at hand. College students believe themselves, with no training in logic or philosophy, to be as capable as anyone else intellectually. Contemporary Catholics pat themselves on their backs for being the “most educated Catholics” in history, and are astonished to be told that they often don’t actually know what they are talking about.

Am I advocating for the complete reintroduction of Latin in the Mass? I don’t think so. Am I advocating a return to Latin in the universities and thus limiting certain ideas to Latin readers? I don’t think so. What, then?

If we are to maintain the humility that is the necessary condition of worship and of learning, we have to find a way to remind ourselves that the liturgy is an act of sacrifice and worship, not a get-together to feel good about our faith. It may well be that a return to Latin would remind us all that what is going on at Mass is something not of this world, something much more profound than anything else happening in our lives. If we do not (and I do not think we will) witness a complete return to Latin in the liturgy, then we have to find another way to communicate this truth in as many parishes as possible. It is not going to be easy. In the case of the Mass, students who stop attending Mass as soon as they get to College tell me that they “weren’t really getting anything out of it,” that “a walk in nature is more meaningful than fellowship inside a dusty old church.” Imagine their expressions when I remind them that it isn’t about them. It’s about worshipping the God who is beyond all understanding. They will flock like enthusiastic ducklings to classes about Hinduism, speakers lecturing on Islam, chapel “services” dedicated to zen meditation. Try saying to them, “Christ has died; Christ is Risen; Christ will come again,” and watch their eyes move away from you in utter boredom.

When we talk about language and its ability to convey meaning in philosophy class, I ask my students to imagine how the earliest Christians experienced the saying of those words. Picture it: there they stand, huddled together in the Colosseum, the lions tied up but eager to do their work, the Romans telling them that to say those words is to become a lion’s lunch. Imagine that they say them anyway—the exact same words, spoken either in the face of torture and death or in the face of deciding what to have for breakfast after Mass. The early Christians weren’t worrying whether Christ’s death and resurrection was “meaningful for them.” We have managed to bring the Mass down “to our level” when Mass is happening as far away from “our level” as is possible. The Latin is gone, and in the vernacular that replaced it, the words of sacrifice and redemption are, Walker Percy says, “worn smooth as poker chips … a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.”

It is for this reason that Percy argues that a Catholic today is like a man who

goes out to a wild lonely place to discover the truth … and there after much suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news … [He] believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio/TV, more common than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays attention to him.

Just as we have to acknowledge our own lowness in relation to the Most High, we need to find a way to confront students (and ourselves) with our own (sizeable) ignorance. If we are to rediscover the humility that is the necessary condition of learning, we are going to have to acknowledge that every human being is not, in fact, “Possessed of enough good sense.” In our colleges and universities, professors have to step up and be willing to be the Simon Cowells of academia, and tell students clearly and simply that their work is awful, when their work is awful.

With regard to the Mass, perhaps replacing some of the simple-minded contemporary hymns with some Gregorian Chant would be a start. Or perhaps replacing some of the vernacular responses with Latin versions like the Agnus Dei. Maybe the priest should turn back around to face the altar to remind us visually that it is Christ, not Fr. So-and-So and certainly not us, who is the focus of the miracle taking place on the altar. However we do it, do it we must. In both the Mass and the university, our minds and hearts are strengthened and uplifted precisely because we have to stretch toward the infinite, and our finite minds will never complete that journey, at least here on earth. We need to see our own smallness, to admit that we don’t, in fact, know what is going on at Mass, we don’t, in fact know how to reason as well as anyone else. If not Latin, we need to find the language to remind us of all that we do not understand.


  • Anne Maloney

    Anne Maloney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of St. Catherine in St Paul, Minnesota.

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